Tim Tuttle
Wednesday May 12th, 2010

When considering Danica Patrick's prospects for the Indianapolis 500, you can take everything she has done on the racetrack this season -- and most of it isn't good -- and throw it out. Indianapolis has been Patrick's best track since she stepped into an IndyCar and she'll be a contender to win in the 94th running on May 30.

Sure, it's been a difficult start for Patrick, who has one top-10 in five Izod IndyCar Series races, but four of those have been on street or road circuits and the lone oval was 1.5-mile intermediate-banked Kansas Speedway. They don't count. They have nothing in common with a 2.5-mile track with long straights and little banking in the turns.

Patrick has been fast at Indianapolis from her first official practice day, when she was No. 1 on the charts. She was on top on five practice days her rookie year at Indy in 2005, building expectations for the race. She survived a spin and overcame a stall in the pits to become the first woman to lead the race, finishing fourth. It was a race that transformed her overnight from race car driver to mainstream celebrity status.

Patrick hasn't been a one-race wonder at Indianapolis. She's run consistently in the top 10, usually in the top five, in her four races since then, and brought it home eighth or better in three of them. Patrick was third last year, but doesn't think it was her best race at Indy. She regards 2007, when circumstances left her eighth, as "maybe" her best performance.

"We were third after the rain restart [on lap 120]," Patrick recalled. "I passed Marco [Andretti]. I was in second. I felt faster than [leader] Tony [Kanaan]. It wasn't until I caught [a lapped car] and tried to pass him in the short chute between [Turns] One and Two, he came down on me. I went into the grass. I dropped back, then a couple of cars went by me. Before you know it, the race ends early for rain."

Patrick never had time to recover. There were two red flags and a caution in the final 15 laps and rain stopped it for good at 166, making Dario Franchitti the winner because he'd pitted out of sequence with the leaders for a flat tire earlier.

"From what I remember," Patrick said, "I was on a winning strategy for the end of the race, but the end of the race did not come at 200. The [pit] cycle would have worked, but it didn't work because it rained.

"Maybe 2007, racing my way, really being in second, having some things happen, that might have been the best one."

Patrick was eighth in '06, too, and it ranks second to '07 on my list of her best drives at Indy. She took a horrible chassis, the Panoz, and wrestled it for 200 laps. There were 10 Panoz in the field, including those driven by Rahal Letterman Racing teammates Buddy Rice and Jeff Simmons. Patrick was the only driver to finish on the lead lap. The next Panoz driver was Roger Yasukawa, who finished 16th and six laps down.

"We knew we were behind the 8-ball all month," Patrick said following the race. "We didn't have the fastest car, but we brought it home all right. We took a car that wasn't fast enough to be a winner and we hustled it around the track and finished and that's half the battle at Indy."

The Panoz had inherent aerodynamic problems and they surfaced in different ways, depending on how the team's engineering staffs tried to remedy them. With Patrick, it was tires wearing out too early.

"I remember the first stint came," Patrick said this week. "Somewhere around 10 laps 'til we stopped. I went into Turn One and got really loose. We weren't sure what the problem was. We were having tire deterioration issues. We stopped early on every stint because the last thing you want to do is crash because of something like that.

"We kept getting our lap back. We were having a pretty good race. If we didn't have to stop early every time, I think we could have finished better than we did."

The '06 race was a valuable experience for Patrick. It taught her patience and value of perseverance at Indy.

"Kind of like this year," Patrick said. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That was a really hard year. I was thrilled as all we could be in qualifying was 10th. When you work hard, you buckle down, you really focus and can do good things.

"I'm sure those experiences play into a year like this where I'm trying not to get upset, trying not to take the focus away from what's important and that's working hard. At those points in your life, just like 2006, you just have to work even harder."

Patrick's only non-top 10 at Indy was 22nd in '08, when she collided with Ryan Briscoe on the pit lane and was eliminated. It did create a lasting memory for those who saw it: An angry Patrick storming down the pit lane on foot toward Briscoe's pit before officials stopped her. But she admits her car wasn't capable of winning that day. "I definitely didn't have the car to win the race, but [it] was a top-five car," she said.

Patrick regards last year's third on the same level as her fourth in '05.

"There are lots of parallels, actually," Patrick said. "Once the car got to the front in '05, I was good there, I was fine. But back in traffic ... dropped back to 10th and I was nothing special back there. I was just hanging out. That's kind of the way it was this year ['09]. Once I was back in the pack, it wasn't anything special and that's how I felt for the first half.

"But I think once the track grip came up enough, where it came into me being able to be flat out there, I think that's when it made the difference and I could make passes happen. I was happy with the day. I was happy with the '05 day with what happened. If you can be there [to win], that doesn't happen that often, but to miss it is more like, oh. What can I say? [Winner] Helio[Castroneves] was really fast and [second place] Dan [Wheldon] did a good job too. So they ['05, '09] actually remember very similar."

Patrick arrives for her sixth Indianapolis 500 with a top team, Andretti Autosport, and, even in a race in which all 33 starters will have a Dallara-Honda-Firestone package, top equipment. Not all Dallaras are the same, and small differences in the suspension can become a big advantage. Combined with her talent and experience, Patrick has everything she needs to win the world's most famous race. It's entirely possible that she will.

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